May 8, 2014 -- Despite their hefty price tags and reports of bloody diarrhea and even deaths, obstacle races like Spartan Race, Tough Mudder and Warrior Dash are seeing a surge in popularity.
But doctors say obstacle racers risk serious injuries that are rarely seen in traditional races for bragging rights. They expect to see sprains, scrapes and even the occasional heart attack after marathons and triathlons, but say they see more acute injuries after obstacle races.
“They’re literally jumping over fire, into rock pits, diving head-first into ponds,” said Dr. Alex Diamond, a sports medicine expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “Some of these obstacles really are just inherently dangerous.”
The problem, Diamond says, is that the races have no governing body to determine which obstacles go too far. A homepage exists for what hopes to become that body, the United States Obstacle Course Racing, but the organization is still in its infancy.
Here, a selection of potential obstacle race health hazards and tips for how to stay safe.
Tough Mudder’s Walk-the-Plank obstacle involves jumping into a deep pool of cold, muddy water from a 15-foot-high platform. Avishek Sengupta, 28, drowned after another racer jumped into the water on top of him, his family claimed in a wrongful lawsuit filed last week. They say Sengupta was in the water for more than eight minutes a rescue diver pulled him out. At the time, Tough Mudder said the event “was staffed with more than 75 ALS, EMT, paramedics, water rescue technicians and emergency personnel,” and that Sangupta’s was “the first fatality in the three-year history of the company.”
Another obstacle racer, 30-year-old Tony Weathers, drowned while crossing a river in the first mile of “The Original Mud Run” in 2012.
Emergency room doctors in Allentown, Pennsylvania, saw a Tough Mudder racer who received 13 electric shocks on the course causing inflammation in his heart, according a series published by the American College of Emergency Physicians in 2013. Another competitor had a stroke, causing temporary paralysis.
Twenty-two people who participated in a Nevada obstacle race in October came down with Campylobacter coli infections ascribed to accidentally ingesting surface water in the mud pit, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
A mysterious skin condition dubbed "Spartan Rash" has been reported in Spartan Race participants plagued by red, itchy skin.
The list of injuries has some doctors questioning the purpose of obstacle racing, which they say carries few if any fitness advantage over other, safer runs.
“Boot camp is going to show you a little bit of a taste of what life is like when you are in combat. But these Tough Mudders, they don’t train you for anything,” said Robert Truax, a doctor of osteopathy at UH Case Medical Center in Cleveland.
Race participants are sometimes non-athletes who don’t take training seriously, said Mark Courtney, a board member of the American Medical Athletic Association. He said the races cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $150, and the companies that run them require participants to sign liability waivers.
Although almost all athletic races require waivers, some obstacle race promoters use the most serious risks as part of their marketing strategies. For example, Spartan Race holds two “Spartan Death Races” a year.
To keep safe, Truax said racers should take their time to complete each obstacle. But that can be hard for people to remember during an adrenaline-fueled event.
“Winning is not the goal,” Truax said. “Crossing the finish line standing upright is the goal.”
Neither Spartan Race nor Tough Mudder responded to request for comment.